BY Kareem Reid in Opinion | 24 NOV 21
Featured in
Issue 223

How Black Obsidian Sound System Are Navigating the Ethics of Appropriation

Kareem Reid on how the group’s Turner Prize nomination conflicts with the B.O.S.S community-oriented aims

BY Kareem Reid in Opinion | 24 NOV 21

When Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S.) was nominated for the 2021 Turner Prize for their community engagement and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as co-organizers of a 24-hour online fundraising event, it served as a reminder of the conditions that led to urgent and accelerated development of cooperative donations for community resources. As Tate Britain’s nomination announcement attested, B.O.S.S. ‘challenges the dominant norms of sound-system culture across the African diaspora through club nights, art installations, technical workshops and creative commissions’.

In a statement issued in response to the nomination, the collective named an awareness of being ‘instrumentalized’. Before the pandemic, widespread legislation enforced closure of nightclubs disproportionately affected Black queer social life and wellbeing. Their scepticism is not surprising given how slow most institutions are to allocate exhibition space for Black artists in Britain. When awarded prizes that invite public scrutiny, Black artists are often charged with becoming representatives of entire communities.

Black Obsidian Sound System, The Only Good System Is a Soundsystem, 2021, installation view, FACT Liverpool, Liverpool Biennial. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Rob Battersby

B.O.S.S. was initiated by artist Evan Ifekoya at their 2018 solo exhibition at Gasworks in London, where a custom-designed sound system was gifted to the community, making it available for discounted rentals for local events. Among the group’s concerns, their statement continues, is the creative industry’s ‘in-built reverence for individual inspiration over the diffusion, complexity and opacity of collaborative endeavour’. For B.O.S.S., sharing resources is necessary for survival and support while navigating emergent careers in the arts. The self-described QTIBPOC (Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black, People of Colour) collective – which currently lists 11 members, many of whom are contemporary artists – has attracted interest from curators and institutions who support live art that often requires audience participation and consider collective action an appropriate response to this moment of institutional reactions to global protests against social inequality. B.O.S.S.’s rapid ascent has been propelled, in part, by individual members’ existing presence in the British contemporary-art circuit.

The group’s debut short film, Collective Hum (2019), directed by B.O.S.S. collectively, is described by Independent Cinema as exploring ‘the histories and present(s) of Black British sound’. The seven-minute film is a montage depicting a group of seven performers dancing in a nightclub, extreme close-ups of speakers, the folded texture of a banner carrying the group’s designer label-inspired bootleg logo, and dancing silhouettes. A fragmented voice-over (narrated by Ifekoya, Igwe, Nadine Peters and Shenece Oretha) is mixed with record scratches and rewind sound effects. One voice critiques societal norms that elevate individual leaders above community. Projections of the performers’ silhouettes are superimposed onto the surfaces of the speakers. Viewers must decipher meaning from a collection of disembodied, distorted vocal recordings. Speech breaks down into single overlapping words: ‘aspirational’, ‘strength’, ‘understanding’, ‘community’ and ‘abundance’ build to a chanted refrain of, ‘We have everything we need between us.’

Black Obsidian Sound System, The Only Good System Is a Soundsystem, 2021, installation view, FACT Liverpool, Liverpool Biennial. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Rob Battersby

‘The Only Good System Is a Sound System’ (2021) is an exhibition and installation at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool, which was commissioned for the Liverpool Biennial. In the exhibition text, B.O.S.S. reflect on how ‘marginalized groups have developed methods of coming together against a background of repression and discrimination in the UK’. Members of the group – Ifekoya, Igwe, Peters, Kiera Coward-Deyell, Phoebe Collings-James, Alice Darko, Shenece Liburd, Marcus Macdonald and Shamica Ruddock – collaborated on this homage to Black women-led sound systems in Britain, which includes an extended version of Collective Hum across two screens in the installation. In their Turner Prize statement, the members write that they ‘draw on the sound system as an archetype of Black expression in order to present a more nuanced and complex picture of our individual and collective concerns’. Yet, in implying that the cultural forms they are re-appropriating lack complexity, the group reveal a troubling sentiment underlying their ethics of appropriation.

Although inspired by the technological innovations of Jamaican sound-system culture and its associations with rebellion, B.O.S.S. seek to elevate that culture from its roots in order to meet their own specific need: designing immersive works for what seems to be a community of peers indistinct from art audiences. Using images of flyers, posters and other ephemera from the archives of a specific nation’s cultural heritage to embody a ‘Black British sound’ (smothering specificity in the process) reinforces a taste hierarchy that classifies the Jamaican originators of sound-system culture and their descendants as unsophisticated. By presenting the sound system as artwork, B.O.S.S. rends this totemic object from its more usual functional contexts.

Black Obsidian Sound System at Somerset House, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Jamaican sound-system culture and its role in shaping Blackness in Britain has always been as complex as it is popular. The distinctive sonic combination of deep, reverberating bass lines with vocal performances brought about the emergence of dub poetry, a mode of Black artistic expression rooted in anti-authoritarian protest, in Jamaica and the diaspora. In London, B.O.S.S. members have replicated enough sound-system culture, by building their own equipment for community events, to establish continuity with an archetype. Installed in the gallery for Liverpool Biennial, the nightclub space (signalled by LED lighting) re-creates an atmosphere of escapist hedonism. Its containment, however, is at odds with the enduring allure of sound-system culture. Yet, in a typically quiet gallery space, the installation is confrontational enough to be recognized and characterized as sufficiently countercultural by Britain’s cultural institutions.

Whether Black artists today hold a social responsibility to their community is an important question, as is the significance of collectivity as a response to crisis. What does British contemporary art’s most prestigious prize do to those community-oriented aims besides suddenly increasing visibility in the public sphere? Does this community, both real and imagined, have Black critics? For B.O.S.S. and their enigmatic artworks, that remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 under the headline ‘Collective Hum’

Main image: Black Obsidian Sound System, 2019. Courtesy and photograph: Theodorah Ndovlu

Kareem Reid is a writer and artist. He lives in London, UK.